We returned to Kuala Lumpur ready to start our short journey to Myanmar where we were meeting a group to cross the country. It is currently mandatory for foreigners with foreign vehicles to be escorted across the country with a guide and tourist police. With that in mind, we had a 10th March deadline to be at the Thai/Myanmar border. Checking the bikes, changing the tyres and installing some smart new lights on Alex’s bike made all the difference, both were ready for the trip!
Navigating Kuala Lumpur was interesting as the slip roads are confusing to Europeans, the exit goes right when one wants to go left and vice versa. Additionally, the road splits without warning only to rejoin later but in the moment, you panic slightly that you may be swept elsewhere and fast!
The iconic Petronas Towers made for a great photoshoot opportunity with very patient guards holding back the traffic. This was the beginning of our Asian adventure and marked day 1 of our return to Europe! Only one, sudden, major legal change was to blight our journey.
While the bikes were on a ship from Canada to Malaysia, Thailand changed its law regarding self-driving of foreigners through the country. It was already more or less accepted that a permit to drive your foreign-registered vehicle was required (at the cost of 7000Baht per bike in this case) which in itself requires a huge amount of paperwork to secure but now, it seemed, one needed to also hire a guide and driver to escort you around the country at great expense. The quotes from different agencies for a 3 day crossing varied from $1500 for the two to $3000 all stipulating that we had to fund the petrol, accommodation and food for the guides and driver. Reeling from the shock of this unexpected twist we had applied for our permit before leaving KL, having been told it takes 30 days. 30 days from that point, we were weaving our way through the polite K.L. traffic, making our way to the highlands.
We were told that the Cameron Highlands were worth visiting, with its tea plantations and strawberry fields. It sounded so different to the sticky and urbanised KL that we were intrigued enough to go. The road, once we turned off the main highway north, was a gift to bikers, it was weaving and dipping gently through forested hills and the traffic was almost non existent. We felt a few spatters of rain and knowing full well the intensity of the rains in Malaysia, we pulled off to have some noodles while the rain passed us by. Unfortunately, we parked the bikes in such a way that they were only half sheltered by a roof overhang but at that point we were blissfully ignorant of the thorough saturation our things were going through.
Other bikers were sheltering in the restaurant while we waited for the rain. They were friendly and even posed for several photographs with us- insisting especially that Alex pose on their Yamahas. They soon sped off in the slowing drizzle so we packed up and left also, reaching our little airbnb for the night and realising that everything in both our “waterproof” luggage was completely soaked through. We ended up having to take it to a dryer as there was neither room nor ventilation in the airbnb to hang everything.
After a tea ceremony, where we enjoyed Cameron Highlands tea and learnt about the stages of pouring tea, we packed and headed out for the heart of the highlands. The roads were so narrow that only one car could pass at any point, which was a problem as the traffic was two-way. However, the occasional gaps made for wonderful riding with a depth of green to the landscape which was unbelievable. The tea plantations looked like fat caterpillars everytime the breeze caught them, they’d ebb and sigh in their chubby rows.
From there, we roade straight to Penang, through yet more rain which was so heavy and with no shelter that we were forced to ride on through deep water as it gushed across the winding road. Despairing for our newly laundered and dry clothes we eventually found a petrol station to shelter in. After an energy drink and a cheeky kitkat (greent tea flavour, which Alex didn’t mind but Simon declared inedible and donated the remainder to Alex) we were treated to a rainbow, signalling that the road was good again. After hitting the highway, we saw signs for Georgetown and Butterworth, indicating a bridge but Alex remembered someone mentioning a ferry so they headed towards the start point for the ferry line on the map and sure enough, there was a boat waiting to load bikes. For the cost of 2.5 ringgits each, we boarded the ferry and jammed ourselves in with all the scooters and commuters.
The ride took no time at all and we made a few friends on board. Once we arrived in Penang, it was a short ride to our beautiful and inexpensive beachside guesthouse we’d found. Tired from the rain riding, we we nonetheless delighted to see that not everything was soaked through this time, and only a few clothes had suffered.
Penang is famous for its food and we were not disappointed – we tried a local food market which is made up of a number of food stalls around a courtyard of tables and Alex had some excellent chili eel.
We rested for a couple of days waiting for our permits to come through. Soon, however, it was time to leave and there was no sign of the permit or details of a guide although our agent at least organised insurance for us. When we explained that we absolutely had to cross in order to make our tour deadline in Myanmar, our agent just giggled and suggested we try a particular border and maybe we’ll be lucky. Aghast at the flippancy, we thought hard about the way forward but decided to try our luck. One of the riders we were meeting in Myanmar encouraged us to use a particular border crossing which they’d favoured so we took his advice and hoped for the best. After leaving Penang at 7am, we finally made it to the border for 1pm (it ended up taking longer to get to because we needed to change money and the border was so tiny there were no money exchangers). We sailed through Malaysian customs, stamps on carnets, stamps in passports, a bit of a joke about offering a new job with the officials who were busy doing our carnets when cars drove up trying to hand their exit cards in, which Alex ended up taking and sorting for the guards. It was all very chummy but we were still so worried about the Thai entry. We could see the gate up ahead and the queues of people so nothing could dispel the slight dread that we’d be turned away today. Would we be allowed back in Malaysia? Would we be arrested??
We got back on the bikes once all the formalities were dealt with, waved goodbye to the friendly Malay guards and rode the short distance to Thailand, not quite daring to breathe. Joining the queue with the rest, we hoped for the best.